Sports and religion have a conflicted relationship. At times, sport has served the objectives of religious authorities and has been imbued with a morality and philosophy derived from religious doctrine. At others, it has been rejected for its secular, corporeal emphasis and its capacity to divert attention from godly activities. Sport has been utilized as a means to evangelize and to convert non believers, and yet it has also represented a threat to the social and moral order. As such, religion has had an indelible impact on modern sport, and sport has been both embraced and rejected by religious authorities across the centuries.
The Ancient Greek Olympic Games is perhaps the most renowned example of the inclusion of physical contests in a religious festival. The Ancient Olympics emerged from the ritual celebration of Zeus, the king of the Ancient Greek pantheon of gods, with the first event, the stade, recorded as part of the festivities in 776 BC. In other regions, religious or ritualized practices influenced athletic contests, including the ancient Mayan culture in Central America, where priests presided over ball games on playing grounds adjacent to their temples. In Japan, the ritualized aspects of sumo wrestling borrow extensively from the national religion, Shinto. Christianity, however, has most influenced modern conceptions of sport.
The relationship between Christianity and physical activities has not always been congenial. The Christian church has regarded sport with suspicion, owing to its emphasis on the profane body and its potential to lure its followers away from their godly responsibilities. While the Catholic Church included many popular physical activities into its religious and festive occasions, the rise of Puritanism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries heralded an era where many sporting activities were regarded as sinful. While the Puritans did recognize the political and military utility in many physical endeavors, recreations popular among the peasant classes were prohibited as they were invariably accompanied by drinking and gambling and other dubious pursuits. Nevertheless, since the mid-nineteenth century, there has been a shift in the relationship between the two institutions, beginning with the incorporation of games in the education of the elite classes in the English public schools. The inclusion of a physical education curriculum to complement the intellectual and moral training already in place elevated sport from a mere corporeal activity to one with a moral and ethical philosophy. In short, sport was employed specifically to teach boys qualities that would transfer to other aspects of life, and as such became a training ground to produce morally and physically competent civic leaders.
Using sport to construct generations of strong, fit, Muscular Christians was the mission of many organizations that feared the feminization of the male youth as a result of industrialization and urbanization. The closer relationship between religious and sporting ideologies was in part responsible for the reconfiguration of Jesus from effeminate and fragile to strong and robust, a more inspiring athletic figure. This mission is apparent in both early Christian organizations that provided sporting opportunities for its members, such as the Young Men’s Christian Association, as well as in contemporary evangelism that utilizes sport and sporting organizations as a means to preach to and/or convert adherents.
Since the rapid expansion of the sports industry through the twentieth century, it has not been uncommon to hear popular commentators refer to sport as a contemporary religion. In this conception, stadia are said to be ersatz cathedrals, while athletes fulfill the role of modern deities. Harry Edwards (1973) pointed to the close structural relationship between sports and religion, identifying saints and gods, ruling patriarchs, high councils, scribes, shrines, houses of worship, symbols of faith, and seekers of the kingdom as features of both. His typology is, on one level, appealing, though he himself regarded sport as quasi religious rather than an outright religion. Yet the similarities he identified have inspired a number of authors to declare categorically that sport is a religion, though this controversial statement is not without its opponents.
In arguing that sport is an actual religion, researchers have examined the emotional and devotional aspects of sport and suggest that sport holds meaning for fans in a way that traditional religions are unable to do. The structural similarities between sports and religion, as identified by Edwards, are not solely what define sport as a religion, but rather the passion, commitment, agony in defeat, and elation in victory reveal a transcendent experience in followers that provides sacred, communal moments between players and fans. For them, a religion delivers a sense of ultimacy, and sport is capable of providing a means of ultimate transformation that alters people’s lives.
Others are not convinced, but recognize that there is more than a coincidental relationship between sports and religion. These researchers argue that sport is similar in structure to a revealed religion and that the two share many ritualized and sacred aspects. But sport itself is also regarded as religious as it represents in tangible form epic human and spiritual struggles, the quest for perfection, an intrinsic drama, and the explication of moral attributes. The ritualized engagement with and in sport, it is argued, serve to deliver a religious experience to their participants, feeding a ‘‘deep human hunger’’ (Novak 1976).
Sport may also be considered a folk religion, which can be understood as the result of shared moral ideals as well as behaviors, and emerges from daily life experiences to provide a means to integrate society, legitimate national values, and communicate societal ideologies. In this conception, sport is accepted as a product of its social, political, and economic context and as an institution that is complicit in reproducing these ideologies. In declaring sport to be a folk religion, researchers recognize its mythic, collective, and historical elements, without necessarily suggesting it is a transcendental experience.
By contrast, those who challenge sport’s elevation to the status of a religion argue that the objects of each institution are not consistent, and thus to equate the two would be to ignore fundamental philosophical differences. Religion, they suggest, is derived from the divine realm, while sport is firmly located in the human experience. One offers truths about life beyond our own experience; the other is simply a corporeal activity embedded in the profane. There is concern that to equate the two might secularize religion and diminish its value.
Essentially, the argument that sport is not a religion rests on the recognition that the intentions underpinning the two institutions vary significantly. Rather than examining sports and religion in terms of structure, it is perhaps more revealing to analyze each from the inside out. Such an analysis reveals the key difference to be the role of religion to proffer answers to, or explanations about, the mysteries of human existence. Sport has no such stated purpose, and even the most ardent sports fan would disagree that devotional activities will reveal anything about people’s lives, destinies, or significance. Sport may well embody and reflect social values and ideologies, they argue, but it does not offer any deeper meanings about this world beyond the activity itself.
For others, the contention that sport is a religious experience is problematic. The mere physical act of playing or watching sport, they suggest, has little relationship to rituals of worship. At the same time, they identify a difference between having a religious experience when playing sport and playing sport for the actual purpose of glorifying a god. While these researchers may recognize that many of the rituals, passions, and even myths within sport can take on a religious like significance for participants, they maintain that the actual sporting performance is not a religious act. Thus the symbolic links between physical movement and the expression of a religious doctrine are questioned. As such, some have suggested it is best to examine the moments when sport and religion serve each other’s interests rather than trying to define one as the other.
A final way of examining this phenomenon is to regard sport as a cultural vehicle through which religious communities may disseminate their faith or reinforce their beliefs to their existing members. This approach suggests that sport may not be divine in and of itself, but as an institution that reproduces cultural meanings and values, it might also serve the interests of religious groups. Cultural activities that rest upon ritualized performances are significant ways to reproduce hegemonic ideologies, and sport is no exception. There are numerous examples where sport has been used as one of a number of cultural means to reinforce the collective identity of a religious community. In South Africa, the Muslim population of Cape Town used rugby as an avenue through which their religious and cultural identity could be consolidated. While not using sport as a direct means to proselytize, rugby nevertheless provided social opportunities for members of the community to interact and reaffirm their sense of belonging. Similar outcomes can be seen among Jewish Americans who used physical recreations as both a means to maintain their faith and cultural heritage, and also to integrate themselves into a new national community. In this way, sport contributes to the reproduction of the religious community’s social arrangements, particularly in new or rapidly changing cultural contexts as members engage in repetitive, ritualistic cultural practices.
The use of sport has not been as pronounced in Eastern or traditional indigenous religions as it has in the Judeo Christian religions, though there is certainly much evidence that movement cultures are incorporated into religious or sacred practices. The primary point of divergence for many Eastern philosophies, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, is a rejection of the material world in preference for the attainment of a higher spiritual order. An emphasis on the body merely for the sake of gaining material rewards in the secular world is antithetical to the quest for enlightenment, and as such, modern, rational, quantified sport does not serve a purpose in the transcendence of the material world and the development of spiritual awareness.
The relationship between sport and religion has been influenced by differing perceptions of the body, the significance of sporting practices in the expression of religiosity, as well as the structure of both institutions. Christianity has had the most pronounced impact on the philosophy of modern sport, though the various Christian churches have not always regarded sport as a suitable activity for their followers. The emphasis on the corpus was thought to be at the expense of the spiritual, a division that remained until the rise of the Muscular Christian movement in the nineteenth century, which provided a new model of the sport/religion nexus, one that led to the proliferation of evangelist practices in sport throughout the twentieth and early twenty first centuries. The popularity of modern sport and the devotion that fans display to their teams has led some to regard sport as a contemporary religion, one that holds more meaning for their followers than traditional religions; however, this standpoint has been challenged by those who regard the inherent natures of sports and religion to be fundamentally different.
- Edwards, H. (1973) Sociology of Sport. Dorsey Press, Homewood, IL.
- Higgs, R. (1996) God in the Stadium: Sports and Religion in America. University of Kentucky Press, Lexington.
- Hoffman, S. J. (Ed.) (1992) Sport and Religion. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
- Magdalinski, T. & Chandler, T. (Eds.) With God on their Side: Sport in the Service of Religion. Routledge, London.
- Novak, M. (1976) The Joy of Sports. Basic Books, New York.
- Overman, S. J. (1997). The Influence of the Protestant Ethic on Sport and Recreation. Avebury, Aldershot.
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